Accessibility links

Breaking News

Our World — 8 November 2008

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... Environmentalists welcome America's next president ... Previewing Friday's Space Shuttle launch ... and concern about too many chickens that are too much the same ...

MUIR: "When it comes to trying to find resistance to new disease, genetics works on diversity. So here we're concerned that we don't have enough genetic diversity to meet future challenges."

Those stories, training nurses in Kenya to look for HIV symptoms, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Environmentalists welcome America's next president

In January, Barack Obama will be sworn in as America's 44th president.

After the eight-year presidency of Republican George Bush, members of Obama's Democratic Party and their supporters are enthusiastically welcoming the change of administration, and probably no group more than environmentalists.

Environmental activists have been highly critical of the Bush Administration for what they see as failures in areas ranging from global warming to conservation.

Senator Obama spoke frequently of the environment during the campaign, often linking it to this year's top campaign issue, the economy.

For example, in a debate last month with his Republican opponent, John McCain, Obama was explicit about the benefits of retooling American industry with an eye on mitigating climate change, reducing dependence on imported oil, and preparing for the future.

OBAMA: "We can create 5 million new jobs all across America, including in the heartland where we can retool some of these plants to make these highly fuel-efficient cars and also to make wind turbines and solar panels, the kinds of clean energy approaches that should be the driver of our economy for the next century."

On the day after Obama's election victory, environmental group officials assessed the campaign and the victory. Gene Karpinski heads the League of Conservation Voters.

KARPINSKI: "He says the biggest problem we face is the economy. And the biggest solution to the economy is a new energy future, creating jobs in this country to drive a new energy economy. So we're so pleased to be able to work with a new president who gets it [shows understanding] on these issues and understands the connection between the environment, the economy, and our security."

Looking ahead to the new administration, which begins when President-Elect Obama is sworn in on January 20th, environmentalists are expecting a change in political atmosphere in Washington. The political director of one of the country's oldest and largest environmental organizations, Cathy Duvall of the Sierra Club, said it would continue and extend the changes that began two years ago, when voters gave Democrats control of Congress.

DUVALL: "We expect much more transparency and accountability in the government process. We saw some more of that over the last couple of years, with hearings and oversight from Congress, where industries like big oil are being taken to task for their behavior. But we can expect much more scrutiny of those who violate the public trust, as well as greater enforcement of environmental laws."

Beyond the presidential ballot, Anna Aurilio of the group Environment America said that candidates for many different offices benefited from pro-environment positions.

AURILIO: "From Senator Obama on down the ballot, the candidates who won were talking about a clean energy future, and voters understood that this meant rescuing the economy, rescuing the planet, and having a more secure world."

The environment group officials spoke with reporters at the National Press Club in Washington.

Low-cost intervention improves care for children with HIV

In many African countries, a nurse is the only health worker a patient might ever see. This can be a problem because most nurses are not well trained at diagnosing common diseases. But some nurses in Kenya now have a new, low-cost, low-tech tool right at their fingertips that helps them reach the right diagnosis. Rose Hoban has details:

HOBAN: Public health professor Paula Tavrow from the University of California at Los Angeles says that nurses in African clinics often don't have the time or the training to figure out what's wrong with patients who may be seriously ill or have a hard-to-identify condition.

TAVROW: "Their inclination is to go for a quick decision. Fever, it's malaria. Running nose, pneumonia… I mean, just really quick decisions."

HOBAN: For example, in many places, Tavrow says nurses were not picking up on the symptoms of HIV in children.

So, she worked with experts and local providers to create a simple notebook to help the nurses make more sophisticated clinical decisions. The provider goes through a list of pre-printed questions with the mother, asking about symptoms and checking off answers.

TAVROW: "So, they then ask them some other questions, they assess whether the child has oral thrush, and so on, and if the child has several of these risk factors, then the mother is encouraged to take the child for an HIV test."

HOBAN: In the clinic where Tavrow tested the booklets, she says nurses went from never encouraging mothers to bring their child for HIV testing, to suggesting it 21 percent of the time. She also says nurses went from never asking mothers about their HIV status to asking about it 50 percent of the time.

They also developed a laminated chart to keep on the examination table.

TAVROW: "It just has all of the treatments all together, put it right in front of you so that when you are writing your prescription, it's right there. You're looking down because providers don't want to seem like 'I am not knowledgeable' in front of a patient, so if it's right there, they look, they don't have to suffer any sort of embarrassment.

HOBAN: Tavrow says the nurses did a better job at identifying children and mothers with HIV, when they used the booklet and the treatment chart.

She also says all of the nurses asked for more products to help improve their diagnostic skills.

Tavrow says the best thing of all is that these materials were low cost. )The booklets cost less than US$0.10, and the treatment charts were about US$2.00). She says this approach to expanding the diagnostic skills of nurses can be easily replicated across the continent.

She recently presented her research at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association last week.

African women willing to pay to prevent maternal death

HOBAN: In another paper presented at the same public health meeting, researchers explored the choices patients in developing countries make when choosing to buy - or not to buy - expensive Western medicines.

Who wouldn't pay for a medication to keep from dying? Well, in many countries, people often don't have the choice of whether or not to pay for drugs because they're too expensive.

But new research from Tanzania shows that women will pay for a medicine to prevent excessive bleeding after giving birth.

Martine Holston says there are many reasons that women in Tanzania might have been reluctant to pay for Western medicine - aside from cost.

HOLSTON: "Perhaps fears of Western medicine, drugs... suspicion, perhaps husbands not wanting to let them use it. There can be a lot of, I would say, cultural issues around using medicine that perhaps might be one reason women wouldn't want to use it … And I do know that in some women there was a little bit of a fear of perhaps the pill being a contraceptive, particularly I believe among Muslim women."

HOBAN: Holston works with Venture Strategies for Health and Development, a non-governmental organization that's attempting to reduce childbirth-related deaths. She says traditional birth attendants in Tanzania have long known that bleeding - called post-partum hemorrhage - can be deadly.

HOLSTON: "They use a local garment called a kanga… two of these kangas, which are a standard size, soaked with blood is the threshold for post-partum hemorrhage, almost exactly 500 milliliters."

HOBAN: Holston says the traditional birth attendants usually send women to a local clinic or hospital when the new mothers soak four or five kangas. But often, the women die before they get treatment. So, Holston and her co-workers trained the birth attendants to give women a drug called misoprostol after soaking just two.

The question was … would women be willing to pay for a Western medicine that costs about the same as a day's worth of food?

HOLSTON: "If women had received postpartum hemorrhage knowledge from a traditional birth attendant, they were more willing to pay for the drug, and if their last birth had been assisted by a traditional birth attendant, they were also more willing to pay."

HOBAN: Holston was surprised to find that in communities where no one had heard of misoprostol, women were even more willing to pay for a drug to stop post partum hemorrhage.

HOLSTON: "Once the traditional birth attendant explained to her that no, this isn't a contraception this is just for bleeding after childbirth, there's no other effects of the drug … the woman was completely amenable to it."

HOBAN: Holston says these results indicate that it would be wise to increase availability of misoprostol in rural areas, and train more traditional birth attendants to use the medication.

Commercial chicken flocks show dangerous lack of genetic diversity

Modern, industrialized agriculture depends to a large extent on uniformity. Wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans are all bred to have predictable characteristics so they can be planted and harvested by machine more efficiently. Livestock, too. When I go to the supermarket I see packages of chicken all lined up, all looking pretty much the same. It helps farmers and processors work more efficiently.

But new research published this week indicates that in the chicken industry, the goal of a uniform product has shouldered aside another important goal - genetic diversity among commercial chicken flocks.

MUIR: "We looked at all of the commercial chicken, layer and broiler production in the world. And it was amazing that actually there's very little variability among the commercial birds."

William Muir is a professor in the Animal Sciences department at Purdue University. And he's the author of a new paper that quantifies the decline in genetic diversity on commercial chicken farms throughout the industrialized world.

MUIR: "This is a worldwide problem, and that's the uniqueness of the paper, is that we essentially assayed the entire world's diversity of poultry to determine what is missing."

The uniformity of the commercial chicken population is not an accident. And on that subject, Professor Muir offers a history lesson. The first domesticated chickens were used as fighting game birds. Later, farmers bred them for eggs and meat - some breeds selected for pleasing color, others for local climate conditions, and so on. Eventually, a large number of standard breeds were developed.

Then, about a century ago, large commercial chicken farming began, and companies looked for breeds that would be well-suited to mass production.

MUIR: "And for their broilers, the one for meat, it turned out to be a cornish variety. And the cornish was actually a game bird, one that was actually made for fighting because of its huge, large breast it could force its way in and it's very powerful. Whereas the layers, we wanted a bird that would put all its energy into making eggs. So they found that the white leghorn was nearly perfect for that. And they said, well, we'll just use this bird, it's already there most of the way, we're 90 percent of the way there, let's just use it, and that's exactly what they did. And so since that time they just used these one of 100 breeds and further perfected them."

What Muir calls "perfecting" actually means breeding out the little remaining strains of other breeds, so that each of the thousands of chickens in the huge flocks raised by commercial farmers would be as identical as possible to the one in the next cage.

This uniformity sounds like a dream for someone running a mass production process. But there's a downside to this lack of genetic diversity: it raises the risk that all these nearly-identical birds could be susceptible to a common threat - such as a disease.

MUIR: "When it comes to trying to find resistance to new disease or trying to make a better product, genetics works on diversity. So here we're concerned that we don't have enough genetic diversity to meet future challenges. That's at the root of the whole problem."

Genetic diversity might make managing flocks more difficult, but Muir says it could also improve their odds of surviving a potentially disastrous disease such as avian influenza.

MUIR: "If avian influenza comes along, they can have the bird that's resistant to it, that you won't have a monoculture, when one disease hits it and it wipes it out. Then what are you going to do? Well, that's the problem. What are you going to do?"

Bringing some disease-resistance back into commercial flocks would mean, first, identifying birds that have the resistance, and then breeding them with the commercial leghorn and cornish breeds.

MUIR: "Somewhere in your wild population there hopefully would be a resistance, but getting that back into the commercial population could be a problem. They need to start now in terms of integrating that biodiversity back into some commercially viable products."

But Muir says that will be a challenge, and an expensive one. The disease-resistant birds' genetic heritage was excluded from the commercial breeds in the process of making them ... more commercial. So breeding in resistance to, for example, avian flu might dilute other characteristics that commercial producers value.

And where are these disease-resistant birds likely to be found? Well, one place to look is places where chickens are raised by small farmers or even families who keep a few birds in the yard for food.

MUIR: "Actually, it's your small producers [who] have the genetic diversity that we need. So they're maintaining it. That's actually the reservoir of genetic diversity are these small populations, the small producers. The big multinational corporations, they want to maximize efficiency, and they want to maximize the return on investment. That's where we're having the problems."

Although William Muir's study was specifically about chickens, he says the same pattern exists in other areas of large-scale commercial agriculture. Ninety percent of the U.S. milk supply, for example, comes from the Holstein breed of cattle.

Muir's study on genetic diversity in chickens was published online this week by the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

Website of the week celebrates the international year of the potato

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week we visit a site that showcases one of the world's major food crops, with text, pictures and video.

IPY VIDEO: "The United Nations International Year of the Potato 2008 is focusing global attention on the key role of the potato and agriculture generally in fighting hunger and poverty."

That video is one of the many features of, a multilingual site that celebrates one of the world's most popular, nutritious, and important food crops.

IPY VIDEO: "Hundreds of millions of people depend on potatoes to survive. Where hunger and poverty are greatest, the honest potato is the most important crop after rice, wheat, and maize. It's the world's number four food crop."

The International Year of the Potato website tells you how to grow your own potatoes - it's in the section for kids. And once you grow 'em, you can cook 'em. The site has recipes including soups from Korea and Ireland, salads from Peru and Egypt, even potato fudge from India.

And you can read how scientists are studying the evolution of the potato and researching how this unassuming tuber can be improved.

IPY VIDEO: "Helping farm families to earn money growing potatoes is one way of helping them break out of the poverty trap. The fast-growing potato even works well in small plots cultivated by poor families in cities, who account for an increasing percentage of total poverty worldwide."

Celebrate the U.N.'s International Year of the Potato online at, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site,

MUSIC: Louis Armstrong - "Potato Head Blues"

Baked, fried or boiled, it's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Scientists identify gene linked to speech impairment in children

Researchers have identified a gene that appears to be responsible for a language disorder that affects up to one out of every 14 pre-school children. VOA's Jessica Berman reports the gene has also been implicated in more serious conditions.

BERMAN: Most children acquire spoken language almost automatically at a very young age. But about seven percent of all children have some difficulty with speaking or understanding language.

Scientists have identified a gene that appears to play a role in inherited, common speech impairments. The gene has also been associated with more serious conditions, including autism - a mental condition that affects the ability to communicate - and attention hyperactivity disorder.

Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Center for Human Genetics at Oxford University in England discovered the gene called CNTNAP2.

Investigators confirmed the gene's role in a study of 184 families with cases of common speech impairments. The study was published in this week's edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.

Karin Stromswold of the Department of Cognitive Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey says that because the defective CNTNAP2 gene is found both in children with both simple and severe speech impairments, more than one gene might be involved in speech difficulties.

STROMSWOLD: "The fact that attention deficit disorder children and autistic children and children with spoken language impairments have motor delays, subtle motor delays makes me a little bit worried that what was picked is not a gene that is specific to language, and - because language involves motor skills - it's impacting language as well."

BERMAN: Nonetheless, Stromswold, says she is excited that scientists are starting to discover genes that are responsible for speech impairments.

STROMSWOLD: "It may be a player, at least [in] the actual forming [of] the sounds and the words of language, and that is really exciting. Maybe we've begun to work out one part of the reasons children sufer from language impairments."

BERMAN: Researchers are now trying to learn how the newly discovered CNTNAP2 gene interferes with language development in children. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Shuttle mission to prepare space station for larger crew

Finally today, the space shuttle Endeavour is set to blast off on Friday, carrying five men and two women on a 15-day mission to the International Space Station.

The astronauts' schedule includes four space walks to repair part of a solar power array, and they'll be delivering equipment and supplies to get the space station ready to double the size of the crew it can accommodate.

Program Manager Mike Suffredini told reporters that the larger crew will help NASA and its international partners get maximum value out of the multi-billion dollar space station.

SUFFRIDINI: "The addition of six crew will allow us to utilize this vehicle. You know, you can pick any estimate you want for what the space station costs, but by any measure it's a very large amount of money, and so as many crew as we can get on orbit to turn their attention to the utilization of this asset, is critical for- given the investment we've put into it."

This will be the fourth space shuttle mission this year, and the first since May.

A flight to repair the Hubble Space Telescope has been delayed to 2009 so an additional piece of equipment on the telescope that failed shortly before launch can be replaced.

Under current plans, the space shuttle will stop flying in 2010. That will leave the United States with no human space flight capability for five years, until the next generation spacecraft go into service. During that period, astronauts will travel to the International Space Station aboard Russian spacecraft.

That five-year gap worries many critics in and out of government. During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama suggested he might reconsider that schedule.

Speaking before election day, space shuttle program manager John Shannon said they're flexible, but not really planning for a change in the existing schedule.

SHANNON: "The only thing that we have done that is different than our plans is some of the workforce out at Michoud Assembly Facility [in New Orleans], where we put the external tanks together, was retained. It's mainly welding crews, but there's not been any other activities that we've needed to take. We understand very clearly that we need to protect options for the next six months or so, and that's what we're doing."

In a letter to Congressional leaders in September, President-Elect Obama said NASA should be funded adequately to achieve its critical missions, including human spaceflight, space exploration, and research. He said NASA has dazzled the world with what he called America's "technological and moral leadership. It is time," he wrote, "to dazzle them again."

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Rob Sivak edited the show. Bob Doughty is the technical director.

And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology ... in Our World.